Lights, camera—lab coat

Dr. Tina Salmassi looks through the camera in class.

When Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Tina Salmassi isn’t poring over microscopic bacteria in the earth’s soil, water or plant surfaces, you may find her chasing light, cueing lines and calling camera shots.

That’s because Salmassi, a highly respected researcher and Cal State L.A. faculty member who earned her doctorate at Caltech, is also a promising film director, producer and writer. Through published research and a collection of narrative shorts, Salmassi has established two divergent careers, demonstrating that she can take charge in a lab or from the director’s chair. 

“Film making and science are two things I have always enjoyed,” Salmassi said, noting that from a young age she carved out time in her schedule to pursue the two interests. “I don’t think that I would be happy if I wasn’t doing both.”

Over the last eight years, Salmassi has flourished in the University’s Biological Sciences Department. She manages several active grants funded by the National Science Foundation. Her scope of research includes projects studying bacteria in the hindgut of termites, math education and astrobiology—for which her students are tracking down the earth’s most resilient organisms in hope of preventing their travel into space on NASA’s shuttles. She is also a lead researcher in the University’s Center for Energy and Sustainability.

As if such scientific pursuits weren't enough, three years ago Salmassi took an added role, enrolling as a part-time student in the University’s Television, Film and Media Studies Program. And last spring, she was selected as one of eight recipients of the prestigious and highly competitive American Film Institute’s Women Director’s Fellowship. (Fellowship alumnae include Maya Angelou, Lesli Linka Glatter (Mad Men) and Matia Karrell (West Wing), to name a few.)

“She has this really passionate interest in film and she wants to direct,” said Assistant Professor of Communication Studies Kristiina Hackel, who also serves as Salmassi’s faculty mentor. “I’m interested to see where she goes with it.”

As part of the fellowship, Salmassi has developed a short narrative film, which she is required to deliver to the Institute by May. Her 11.5 minute film, Tumbling, is described as a coming-of-age tale about the loss of innocence.

Through the fellowship, Salmassi said she “learned a lot about what you can and can’t capture on film” as well as what’s important to her as an artist. Her project included a number of challenges, such as featuring a child actor, a live snake (and snake handler), and stunts.

“Film is an expressive art form—but you can’t do it alone,” Salmassi said. “You have to find the right team to work with you.”

Salmassi’s previous film projects also attracted attention. Her short, Pain Killer, won in the best narrative category at the 2008 RIZE UP Film Festival and last year, Violet and Rose, won first place in the drama category at the Golden Eagle Film Festival. A third film, Ghetto Blaster, is making festival rounds.

“This has been a really good learning experience,” Salmassi said. “And I think I’m ready to move on. I don’t want to do any more shorts, though. I want to start making feature films.”

As for melding her passions, she said, at least for now, they are two distinct interests.

“I separate them in my brain,” Salmassi said. “I have several colleagues that say that exploration in the arts makes you a better scientist, a more creative researcher, but right now they are so different to me that I keep them separated in my head.

“I think if I find the connection, it will be great for both fields, but I am still new at it.”